There have been moments in my life where the only decision I could make was either to give up or fight for whatever I wanted at the time. Some many of those times have occurred right at the beginning of the year and right after I’ve made a decision to turn a situation around.
One example of flight-vs.-fight immediately comes to mind. One was twenty years ago tomorrow, the beginning of my second semester at Pitt. After battling my obsession with my second crush and my homesickness through most of the previous fall, I made the decision to never allow a woman to steal my sanity and confidence like that again. Then on the day I was to fly back to Pittsburgh, my grades from the first semester came in. I earned an A in Astronomy for athletes, a B- in Pascal, a C in Honors Calculus (no surprise there) and a C+ in East Asian History. The grade in that course was a shocker, but it shouldn’t have been. I missed two-thirds of my history classes in November and December, and just under half of all of my classes overall in the last six weeks of the semester.
Some may say, what’s so bad about having a 2.63 GPA in your first semester at Pitt, or any other university for that matter? I had an academic scholarship that depended on me finishing each school year with a 3.0 minimum overall GPA. If I didn’t, then it was bye-bye academic scholarship. I needed to have a monster of a semester to push my GPA over a 3.0. Plus, I felt a sense of shame, of not wanting this part of my life to end in failure. I started my undergraduate career the same way I ended my days at Mount Vernon High School — underperforming and in need to turn things around. I didn’t want to spend my undergrad years constantly coming from behind — like an underperforming athlete — just to earn a halfway decent grade.
I had already plotted my comeback when two obstacles immediately came to my attention. One was my Pitt bill, which was nearly $1,300 in arrears, a lot of money for me. I had to stand in a line wrapped around Thackeray Hall in minus two degree weather for nearly two hours and make a call to my former employers at General Foods (where they held $1,200 in trust for my college tuition) to get my Pitt bill straightened out. That was the easy part.
Obstacle number two involved my dorm mates, half of whom were on Pitt’s basketball team (not the nicest sort), the other half the folks I usually hung around (geeks who would make most of my high school classmates look like socialites by comparison). They had spent most of November and December binge drinking and occasionally taking me along for the ride. One of them had begun to build a pyramid of Busch beer cans in their room, one nearly five feet tall by the time I returned from the holiday break. All I needed to do was to figure out how to co-exist with my immediate dorm mates, as they had aggravated my situation with their morbid, drinking ways.
The opportunity I needed happened a few days after I straightened out my Pitt bill. As usual, I left my door open and walked down the hall to the bathroom, did my thing, and went back to the room to call my mother. When I called, my mother kept saying “Hello . . . Hello . . . Who’s there?” She apparently couldn’t here me. After my third attempt, I checked my phone to see what was wrong. One of my idiot dorm mates had unscrewed the phone and taken the transmitter piece out, which was why my mother couldn’t hear me. I couldn’t even make a call to report what they did. I set out looking for the Busch beer pyramid guy in his room. When he saw me, he ran and immediately closed his door, almost breaking my hand as I kept slamming my body into his door and put my foot between the door and the door jam.
I thought about telling our RA, who was too busy screwing his girlfriend to notice that he had no control over our floor. So I took matters in my own hands. The next day, the stupid ass was next door in a mutual acquaintance’s room, bouncing balls off my wall and laughing like there was something funny about it. My anger turned into a rage I hadn’t felt since my fight with one of my classmates six years before. I grabbed my dust mop and unscrewed the handle, walked next door, and proceeded to smash the drunk ass and one of his stupid ass friends on top of their heads. “I don’t hear anyone laughing now!,” I yelled. “If I don’t get my phone piece back by this time tomorrow, there’s going to be a fight, and I don’t intend to lose! We can all get kicked out of school!” I’d never seen three White guys so scared. I knew I had crossed a line, but so had they. To make sure they knew that I meant business, I smashed my dust mop handle against the wall as hard as I could and said, “That’s what’s gonna happen to your heads if I don’t get my phone piece back.” They sent another dorm mate — the only other person of color in our group — as an emissary with the transmitter by the end of the day.
I didn’t allow myself to feel bad about going psycho or, from their perspective, “Black” on my dorm mates. With only a couple of exceptions, I saw everyone on my floor as the enemy for a while. And for the next couple of weeks, whenever I left the room at night for the bathroom or for something else on my floor, I took the dust mop handle with me. I wasn’t crazy. I was as sane as I’d been in a long, long time.
The result of my decision to excommunicate almost all of my first semester friends was that I could start with a clean slate. This was especially true on a campus with nearly thirty thousand students. In my resolve to become more serious about school, I also became more serious about whom I wanted to befriend or hang out with. With few exceptions, most of the friendships that began that semester were with folks at least two years older than me. I knew I needed to grow up, and fast, if I expected to make it through the end of the semester and year.
Still, as I’ve talked about in other postings, I didn’t trust myself enough to maintain contact with my new friends and the few people in authority I knew. Even after a semester in which my GPA rose to a 3.3, bringing my overall GPA to a 3.02. My resolve to change things in my life came out of anger, and could only be a short-term solution to the long-term problem of my life, of trust and faith in myself and others, a willingness to risk failure in order to have success, to allow myself to like and love someone, risking deep hurt in the process. Still, I had to start somewhere, and anger channeled into the only thing I knew how to do well — being a student — was probably the best starting point of all.